Words and Reputation

Over at the Blue Oxen blog, I wrote about how I’ve incorporated Contextual Authority Tagging (your reputation in context) into my work.    (N5Z)

In the piece, I started using myself as an example. I listed three words that I would use to describe myself in a work context. I then started to contrast this with words that my colleagues might use to describe me. Then I stopped, thinking, “Why make up words that others might use to describe me, when I can get actual words?”    (N60)

Enter Twitter (and by extension, Facebook):    (N61)

Please help with an ad hoc experiment. Reply with three words that describe me. Will blog an explanation and the results.    (N62)

In retrospect, it was an incredibly self-indulgent thing to do. When I do this exercise with groups, it’s anonymous, and all of the participants are doing it for everyone. Neither was true in this case. No one was going to voluntarily say something critical for me, especially without understanding the purpose. Furthermore, I’m usually doing the exercise in a specific context, which is a big part of the point. The beauty (and challenge) of Twitter and Facebook is that my networks there cross all sorts of boundaries.    (N63)

All that said, the exercise was still instructive in many ways:    (N64)

https://i0.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3340/3490759097_e700bbd3a2.jpg?w=700    (N65)

Most words were only used once. The larger words were repeated one other time. This distribution makes sense, given the multiple contexts of my friends and colleagues. One of my friends wrote, barbecue, something that most of my colleagues probably don’t know about me. A few of my colleagues wrote, wiki, which probably wouldn’t come up first for most of my personal friends.    (N66)

No one repeated any of my words, which surprised me. (Can you guess which three words were mine? See my other post for the answer.) The words that folks did choose certainly paint a fuller picture.    (N67)

I love how a few words can tell a rich story. Gabe Wachob contributed “Eugene Lee doppelganger,” is a reference to the parallel lives that Eugene Lee, the CEO of Socialtext, and I seem to lead. (I’m younger, but Eugene has more hair.) My friend, Elizabeth, wrote, “wicked scary smaht,” an oblique reference to our shared ties to the Boston area.    (N68)

Eugene Chan wrote, “curious, competitive, cunning,” a few days after I talked trash with his six year old son in a vicious game of Uno. The good folks at WikiHowl called me “myopic,” hopefully a reference to my eyesight and not my vision. (They are also my new favorites for calling me, “cute.”)    (N69)

Which brings me to my final point. There were a few cheeky comments (Cindy and Scott, that means you!), which made me laugh, and there were a lot of incredibly nice comments, which… well, which felt good. I’m a fairly well-balanced individual with a strong sense of self (“confident” was one of the words that was repeated), and I don’t need to hear this stuff to know that my friends and colleagues care about me. Still, it’s nice to hear. It made my day that much better. And that’s probably the greatest thing about the exercise. If at worst, all it does is elicit a few nice comments from your peers, well, that’s a great thing. We don’t do that often enough.    (N6A)

Many thanks to all of you!    (N6B)

Blue Oxen Barnstars

I just started a podcast over at the Blue Oxen Associates web site entitled, Blue Oxen Barnstars. The name comes from the Wiki notion of Barnstars, and it’s an opportunity for me to tell the stories of people doing remarkable collaborative work in my community. The first episode is with Jeff Conklin, whom I have mentioned many, many times here. Take a listen!    (N5G)

I had a great time putting the podcast together, and now that I have the basic mechanics of it down, and I plan on doing it often. The tools that are available for this are amazing. I used the Open Source Audacity for the sound editing, and I used Creative Commons music recommended by Paul Youlten.    (N5H)

While you’re over there, I’d encourage you to subscribe to the Blue Oxen blog, as I’m starting to post many of my stories and insights into collaboration over there.    (N5I)

Nervous in Nigeria

My project with the LDM program for reproductive health leaders in developing countries took me to India and Ethiopia in March, and today, it has taken me to Kano, Nigeria. I arrived here safe-and-sound, although I had a somewhat traumatizing run-in with security at the airport in Abuja. More on this in a sec.    (MYX)

I’m here to meet with the in-country managers of the project’s participating countries. I’ll get to see Cheryl Francisconi, Sanjay Pandey, and Haddis Mulugeta again, and I’ll be meeting Judith Ann Walker, Kamyla Marvi, and Magdalena Lopez in the flesh for the first time. I came here with Adam Thompson from GIIP, who’s been working on the technology side of the project, and Scott Reed, who’s also with GIIP.    (MYY)

Strangely enough, I’m more nervous about this trip than I was about my previous one. You would think that my previous experiences, which were overwhelmingly positive, would have made me a hardened, confident traveler. But the vibe leading up to this trip has been much different.    (MYZ)

One of my best and oldest friends, Gbenga Ajilore, is Nigerian. So is one of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Ade Mabogunje. I spoke with both of them before the trip, and they were excited about me coming here. The reaction from other friends and colleagues was quite the opposite. Most of the non-Nigerian Africans I spoke to do not think highly of Nigerians for reasons that I don’t quite understand. Several of my well-traveled friends had horror stories to share, although none of them had actually visited here. Cheryl is the most fearless and experienced traveler I know, and even she had some scary stories.    (MZ0)

On the plane ride over, I read a report written by Adam’s boss at GIIP, Paul Lubeck, who has researched this country for 30 years. It’s about how the U.S. has a strong interest in West Africa and particularly Nigeria because of the oil there. Nigeria provides 10-12 percent of U.S. oil imports, and that number is expected to grow significantly. The bad news is that Nigeria is a volatile country as it is, and the demand for oil is only making it worse. Corruption is rampant, and violence is widespread. Predictably, U.S. policy over the past seven years has only worsened the situation.    (MZ1)

You can see why I was nervous. But on the plane today, I was mostly just tired. We arrived safely in Abuja on a stopover to Kano, and they asked us to deplane. While in the waiting area, I decided to snap a picture of Adam and Scott.    (MZ2)

Out of nowhere, a stocky man dressed in a white dashiki grabbed my camera in my hand, and exclaimed, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Come with me!” I thought this guy was nuts. “What are you doing?” I responded, increasing my hold on my camera and looking around for help. As far as I could tell, everyone was doing an excellent job of pretending nothing was happening.    (MZ3)

My reaction just agitated the man, who kept insisting that I come with him and who said that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I kept my cool, but I also kept my grip, and I insisted a number of times that he tell me who he was and show me some identification. “I don’t have to show you anything!” he barked. “Come with me!”    (MZ4)

He was wearing some kind of badge around his neck, which was obscured by his arms. I wasn’t making the situation better, so I decided to go with him. Both of us continued to hold onto the camera. Every time I saw someone in uniform, I explained to them what this strange man had done. Enough people said that I needed to follow this guy that I continued to cooperate, but I was not going to let go of my camera, and I wasn’t going to shut up.    (MZ5)

Eventually, we ran into two official looking men who asked me why I was taking pictures. “I was just taking pictures of my friends,” I explained to them, showing them the pictures.    (MZ6)

“Why would anyone take pictures in an airport? What were you doing?”    (MZ7)

I explained to them that I had no idea this was not allowed, and that I took pictures in airports all the time. The security guy then claimed I tried to fight him, which infuriated me. Still, I kept my cool. “Why were you harassing this man?” they asked me.    (MZ8)

“I wasn’t harassing anyone. What would you do if a strange man came out of nowhere and just grabbed your camera?”    (MZ9)

“Why didn’t you ask for ID?”    (MZA)

“I asked several times, and he wouldn’t show me.”    (MZB)

The security guy then responded, “He never asked me for ID.”    (MZC)

I looked at him disgustedly, but I was surprisingly resigned. So this was how it was going to be. “I have a number of witnesses who can verify that I asked for his ID.”    (MZD)

I then explained, “Look, I’m not trying to cause any trouble. All I want to do is get back on my plane. I didn’t know this was a policy, and I was taken aback by how this man reacted. I will happily erase the pictures.”    (MZE)

The men agreed to that and told the security guy to take me back. I breathed a sigh of relief.    (MZF)

As we walked back to the room, the security guy turned to me and asked, “Why are you so arrogant?”    (MZG)

I couldn’t believe what he had just said, but again, I kept my cool. “I wasn’t being arrogant. I didn’t know the policy, and I had no idea you were anyone official. How would you have reacted if someone had come out of the blue and grabbed your camera? In any case, I’m sorry for any trouble that I caused.”    (MZH)

Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy him, and when we got back to the room, he held out his hand. I shook it, and that was that.    (MZI)

Scott and Adam looked relieved when I returned, and Scott observed that he would have just let the guy take the camera. If the circumstances had been different, I would have also, but we were surrounded by people, and he did have that badge (even though he wouldn’t show it to me). It happened to turn out for the best, but it was a good kick in the pants for me to stay on my toes while I’m here.    (MZJ)

Evolutionary Leadership Workshop: Final Exercise

For the last exercise of my guest stint at Alexander Laszlo and Kathia Laszlo‘s Evolutionary Leadership class a few weeks ago, I decided to have the group come up with a working definition of “collaboration,” as well as thoughts on patterns of and metrics for effective collaboration. If this sounds boringly familiar to regular readers of this blog, it should. This conceptual framework is fundamental to everything I do, and I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and leading workshops about it.    (MMQ)

It was all par for the course for me, except I only had 90 minutes. The way I usually approach this in my workshops is to start with storytelling, model the collaborative experience, then have the participants synthesize the framework themselves based on their own learning. We didn’t have time for that. I thought about giving up and doing a traditional lecture, and if I had had slightly less time (say, an hour), I probably would have. But, that would have been extremely lame, and I wanted to see if I could pull off something interesting in 90 minutes.    (MMR)

What I decided to do in the end was create a makeshift anthropology experiment, with the students acting as both the subjects and the anthropologists. I divided the class into four teams. The first three teams would spend half an hour working on the same problem: Define collaboration. However, each team would have different process and tool constraints. The fourth team would observe the other three working.    (MMS)

The three teams were Team Nike, Team Wiki, and Team Taylor. Team Nike’s constraints were simple: It had none. I gave them the challenge without guidance or constraints, and it was up to them to figure out how to go about solving the problem. Their task was to just do it.    (MMT)

Team Wiki was divided into three subteams. They were allowed to interact as much as they wanted and however they wanted with their subteams, but they were not allowed to verbally communicate between subteams. There was a laptop projected in the middle of the room running a text editor. The team’s final product would be whatever was written on the text editor at the end of their time. Only one group could be at the keyboard at a time, and they could write whatever they wanted on the editor.    (MMU)

https://i1.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1390/1424241488_9de86fefbb_m.jpg?w=700 https://i1.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1142/1423359835_cad0b5609b_m.jpg?w=700    (MMV)

The final team, Team Taylor, was given a process similar to one I’ve used in many other workshops. They initially broke up into small groups and shared personal experiences with great collaboration. They then regrouped and worked through a series of “Is it Collaboration?” scenarios. Finally, they were given the final exercise and asked to put together a definition given their previous work. (They were named after Blue Oxen advisor Gail Taylor and her husband, Matt Taylor, who were my advanced introduction to workshop designs like these.)    (MMW)

Why this breakdown? I really wanted the students to think carefully about their experiences collaborating with each other as much as the content of the exercise itself. By having three processes going simultaneously, it was clear that the compare-and-contrast would be an important element in this exercise. By having full-fledged observation teams, this process discussion would be a major part of the report-out as well as the resulting work products.    (MMX)

I think the exercise worked moderately well. The participants seemed to enjoy the process, and the comments in the debrief were excellent. The timing was predictably tight, and there were some aspects of the exercise that could have been tightened up some. The most frustrating omission for me was the lack of a collective synthesis process, but I knew that would be the case from the start.    (MMY)

I was most curious to see what Team Nike would do, since they had the least constraints. Both the team itself and its observers noted that initially, there was a lot of talking past each other. I think that’s very natural for large groups that are new to each other, especially when under time constraints. I observed something similar during the Hidden Connections breakout I participated in earlier in the day, and we all saw this during the group counting exercise as well.    (MMZ)

There are several ways to counter this phenomenon. The method most people tend to default to is “stronger facilitation” — having a designated facilitator maintain tight control over the process. There’s a time and a place for this, but I think the resulting order is largely artificial, and that the group will likely fail the Squirm Test. If you do have a designated facilitator, one simple technique that is remarkably effective and underutilized is to simply ask the group to listen to and respect their peers. We saw this work with the group counting exercise, and I’ve seen it work again and again in other meeting contexts.    (MN0)

Although there was no designated facilitator for Team Nike, a few individuals stepped up to take on that role. There was no decision-making process up-front. One student simply started acting as the facilitator, and the others followed. (Leadership is action.) Another student started taking notes and often validated what other people said, which helped slow down the discussion and validated individual participation. This is an outstanding example of the artifact playing a strong, facilitative role, a premise underlying patterns such as Shared Display and processes such as Dialogue Mapping.    (MN1)

At one point, Alexander Laszlo, who was participating in Team Nike, approached me and asked, “Can we collaborate with other groups?” I laughed and said, “You can do anything that wasn’t expressly forbidden.” Because of the time constraints, Team Nike didn’t end up pursuing this, but I was glad they had this insight in the first place. It’s always one of my favorite moments when somebody realizes, “Is there any reason why we couldn’t collaborate with others?” It often takes surprisingly long for someone to figure this out, even at workshops where collaboration is one of the stated goals. It’s a sign of how culturally engrained it is for us not to collaborate with each other.    (MN2)

In my opinion, strong design is much more powerful than strong facilitation, and those were principles I hoped would emerge when comparing Team Wiki and Team Taylor’s processes with Team Nike’s. Two design constraints all three teams shared were a concrete goal and a time constraint. Nothing motivates a group to collaborate more effectively than a sense of urgency, and both of these constraints help to create that urgency. One of the most important elements of Blue Oxen‘s definition of collaboration is the notion that the goal is bounded — that it has both a beginning and an end. If there’s an end, then the goal is measurable, and you can have a time constraint. None of the teams identified this in their definitions of collaboration, although I’d be willing to bet that it would have emerged if we had more time.    (MN3)

Another useful design constraint is the power of small groups. Conversation flowed better within both Team Wiki and Team Taylor, and that flow carried over when Team Taylor got together as a large group. It’s a simple principle, and yet it’s also vastly underutilized.    (MN4)

Besides being broken into small groups, Team Wiki’s major design constraint was the use of a Shared Display as a medium for both creating their deliverable and communicating between the group. My goal was to simulate a Wiki-like collaborative pattern in a very short timespan. Given my well-known love of Wikis, I enjoyed watching this group the most. The content itself evolved predictably in a way that was reminiscent of Wikis, starting with a straw man of content, some side conversations in the document itself, and plenty of refactoring. The group dynamic, however, was anything but predictable. One group went directly to the laptop and started working. Another group saw this, realized only one group could type at a time, and decided that it would spend most of its time talking amongst themselves. Throughout the half hour, two groups regular switched off on the laptop while the third group didn’t participate until the very end. The last few minutes was mostly frantic typing while everyone else stood around and watched.    (MN5)

Several people noted the challenge of having only a single keyboard, and expressed curiosity about the possibility of having multiple people work simultaneously. We could have accomplished that a number of ways, the best of which would have been to use a real-time collaborative editor such as Gobby or SynchroEdit. However, the point of this exercise was to simulate asysnchronous collaboration. I think this was an exercise that would have benefited from a bit more time.    (MN6)

Two interesting things emerged from Team Taylor, one which I expected and one which I didn’t even notice until the team itself pointed it out. At one point, the team observed that two people were monopolizing the conversation, and that they were both men, even though the majority of the group comprised of women. This observation was complicated by the fact that the observation team — in this case, all men — were sitting with the group in a circle rather than outside of the group. As a result, it was hard to say whether this was indeed a gender dynamic, or whether the two who spoke the most just happened to be the biggest talkers in the group. Nevertheless, the awareness of the gender dynamic was an important one that a lot of facilitators — especially males — miss.    (MN7)

Team Taylor didn’t do a particularly good job at the stated exercise, but one participant observed that if they had five more minutes, they would have done an amazing job. I believe this, and I think the resulting definition would have scored the highest on the Squirm Test. The reason for that was that their process was optimized for building Shared Language and trust. The personal storytelling was especially important for trust-building. When you have both of these in great amounts, the actual collaboration is far more effective. Truthfully, they were also hamstrung by the fact that I didn’t tell them what their actual goal was until the final ten minutes of their exercise. That would have been an appropriate thing to do if they had much more time, but given the time constraints, it probably would have been more fair to tell them the exercise ahead of time. I agonized over this when designing the exercise, and I chose not to tell them the exercise in advance because I was afraid the urgency of the deadline might cause them to skip through the first two exercises.    (MN8)

Finally, a word on the actual definitions. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by any of the definitions, again largely due to the time constraints. I was more interested in the group learning. However, I thought all three definitions were pretty good, and I was impressed by the context and the patterns that emerged: the importance of trust, communication, and Shared Language, for example. I also saw something that I’ve seen with other folks and with other definitions. Everyone tried to define “effective collaboration,” when in fact, the exercise called for simply defining “collaboration.” I think it helps to separate the two. Ineffective collaboration is still collaboration. There is something cognitively liberating about separating the question of whether or not you are collaborating from whether or not you are collaborating effectively.    (MN9)

I was very impressed by the quality of the group, and I had a blast working with them. I recommend folks interested in learning more about collaboration, systems thinking, and leadership in a business context to check out the Presidio School program, and in particular, to take a look at the various classes that the Laszlos teach.    (MNA)

Leadership Learning Community

In the second half of 2006, I took a hard look at my list of projects and opportunities. I decided that I needed to be brutally honest about what I wanted to accomplish with Blue Oxen Associates, and that ultimately, I wanted two things:    (LTL)

  1. To have a wider impact    (LTM)
  2. To give more quality time to fewer projects.    (LTN)

That meant not renewing existing commitments and saying no to a lot of great people.    (LTO)

In the midst of all this, I got an email from Elissa Perry asking if I’d be interested in becoming a board member of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). LLC is a community that takes a network-centric approach to leadership development, focusing particularly on the graduates of the many foundation leadership programs across the entire sector. Elissa had participated in our first two FLOSS Usability Sprints, and we had chances here and there to chat about our respective work and organizations. We were definitely on the same philosophical plane, and I loved hearing about the great work LLC was doing.    (LTP)

That said, my first instinct was to say no. But I decided to sleep on it, and I started having second thoughts. When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I originally wanted to focus on the nonprofit sector, and while we shifted our strategy midway through our first year, my heart never left that space. Over the years, I met many great people in the sector, I worked with a number of foundations and two nonprofits (Planetwork and People for the American Way) as clients, I joined the board of a nonprofit (Tomorrow Makers), and I did several projects with Aspiration, most notably the usability sprints. But I never got the chance to really get my hands dirty with one particular group. Focus was always the issue.    (LTQ)

Joining the board of LLC would give me the chance to focus my energies on one nonprofit and simultaneously impact the entire sector. If I were going to make that commitment to one organization, I wanted to make sure it was a good fit. I decided to research LLC a bit more, and the more I read, the more I felt kinship to the mission and the execution. In many ways, they were trying to do the same thing for leadership that I was trying to do for collaboration. I loved their emphasis on learning as well as their methodology. Most importantly, I saw ways that we could learn from each other.    (LTR)

In the end, I said yes. I was confident about my decision, but after participating in a board meeting and in one of their learning circles last month, I am ecstatic about it. Everyone there is smart, action-oriented, and full of heart, starting with the executive director, Deborah Meehan. That also goes for its board. The board meeting felt like… well, like one of Blue Oxen‘s workshops. Except it wasn’t a workshop, it was a board meeting! This was not your typical, sign-off-on-the-budget-so-we-can-go-drink meeting. This was a welcome-to-the-family, stretch-your-mind, now-get-down-to-business meeting, and it was infinitely more effective and fulfilling that way.    (LTS)

The learning circle, for me, sealed the deal. Not only did I get to watch the LLC staff do their thing, I was also blown away by the caliber of the participants, who were mostly from foundations. I live in an area and work in a field where I am constantly surrounded by brilliant people, and to be very frank, I have always been underwhelmed whenever I’ve attended gatherings of foundation people. This was a notable exception. I was struck by the breadth of experience, the depth and rigor of thinking, and the respectful and authentic discourse among the participants. My brain was overflowing by the end of the workshop.    (LTT)

As I said a few weeks ago, a week with the LLC generated enough thoughts to fill a thousand blog posts. I won’t write that many, but I hope to spit out a few, starting with this one. In the meantime, if you’re interested in leadership, check out the web site, participate in one of the learning circles, and come participate in the annual Creating Space workshop in Baltimore, April 11-13, 2007.    (LTU)